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Jack Smith

Nat (King) Cole was a merry old soul, but where did he get started as a single?

August 28, 1985|Jack Smith

I have several letters from people who have had close encounters with the stars, which used to be one of the possibilities of life in Los Angeles.

Those were the days when stars of the first magnitude sometimes did their own shopping, ate in ordinary restaurants, and went abroad in open cars, instead of opaque-windowed limousines.

It was a time when a kid was offered a ride on the running board by Tom Mix; when the young Ray Bradbury literally bumped into an astonished Greta Garbo on the sidewalk; when I myself had a beer in an otherwise empty bar just two stools away from Robert Mitchum.

Dan Clements of Encinitas, who used to work for United Air Lines, remembers one night when he was working the ramp (this was before the indoor concourses and boarding security) and a girl in a brown skirt and sweater motioned to him. It was Marilyn Monroe. She was there to meet Joe DiMaggio, flying down from San Francisco.

"Did I have a dime?" he recalls her asking. "I didn't. Did I have any gum? Again, no, but I would bum some from a mechanic servicing a DC-6, and no, I would not blow her cover.

"As she chewed and paced--minced, really--around the empty gate, I mentioned that I had admired her work in 'Niagara.' She smiled and said it was the first movie she'd done that they didn't make her just wiggle through. . . ."

When DiMaggio arrived, Clements remembers, Marilyn "Wrigleyed" away with him--"leaving a permanent imprint on my soul and psyche."

George Tibbles, writer and musician, recalls a poignant encounter with the woman of his dreams--Nancy Carroll, who was a musical comedy star when he was a "raw youth" of 15.

"I saw her every picture. Many times. I knew every song. I could play every song (piano). I dreamed of her piquant face. . . ."

That was in the early '30s. In the late '30s, Tibbles was hired with Ned Gray as part of a two-piano team to play intermissions for Emile Coleman and his band at the Trocadero, on the Strip.

"Don't get applause," he was warned by the owner. "They are here to gossip about each other. They are not here to listen to you."

So they played for the stars, none of whom listened. Until one night Nancy Carroll walked in--"on the arm of a man I simply didn't see."

By then, Tibbles notes, Nancy's star had fallen. "Her luster had been oxidized by time. But not by me. Never to me. I called across the pianos to my partner, 'Follow me.' "

Tibbles started with "Illusion," and played half a dozen songs that Nancy had sung. From "Illusion" on, her eyes never left his. Then she got up and walked toward his piano.

"I saw tears in her eyes," he remembers. "She said, 'I don't know how you did it, but thank you.'

"And she kissed me on the cheek. . . . If you and I meet casually sometime, I'd be pleased to show you the very cheek upon which I was once kissed by Nancy Carroll."

In a postscript he adds, "You mention the Band Box. I played there for something like nine years, and I seem to remember that Slapsie Maxie's was on Beverly Boulevard originally--and then moved to Wilshire."

Dr. Marvin H. Leaf, whose recollection of Slapsie Maxie's as being on Beverly was challenged here, takes umbrage, as indeed he has a right to.

"The original Slapsy Maxie's was too on Beverly Boulevard--7165 Beverly Boulevard, to be exact--a small nightclub which today is the Beverly Cinema Theater. I used to park cars there to pick up a few farthings while in USC dental school, and Jackie Gleason was wont to come out on the sidewalk during intermissions to smoke a coffin nail and josh with us peons."

Leaf agrees with other readers that from that location Slapsie moved to the previous site of the Wilshire Bowl, where Phil Harris played for many years.

Leaf is also disgruntled that anyone should question his recollection of Nat (King) Cole playing solo piano at the Swannee Inn. "Again, I'm talking about 1941 or 1942," he says. "The King Cole Trio was formed a year or two later. . . . The beloved Cole was an extremely talented but little-known pianist at the time. . . ."

If that needs corroboration, Mort Ruby, who says he was Cole's road manager for five years, writes that Mr. and Mrs. Bob Lewis, owners of the Swannee Inn, hired Cole as "a single piano player."

When Cole played, people danced, and it was Bob's idea to add a couple of musicians. Mrs. Lewis put a crown on Cole's head and dubbed the group the King Cole Trio.

But Tom Peckham, editor of our in-house publication, Among Ourselves, says this:

"Some old friends of mine--Abe and Isabel Lincoln--ran the joint for a few years during that era. Abe was a top-drawer trombone player who sat with Whiteman, Crosby and Matty Matlock. He still performs a few gigs. . . . Anyway, I can remember them saying that they gave Nat Cole one of his first jobs--solo at the Swannee. . . ."

"I believe," writes Ben Bell of Studio City, "that the solo pianist that Dr. Leaf heard at the Swannee Inn on La Brea just south of Beverly Boulevard was Art Tatum. . . . As a pianist, he belongs right up there with Franz Liszt, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Liberace. Don't you think?"

Yes, but let's not leave out Chico Marx, Victor Borge and my cousin Annabel.

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